Follow the Yellow Brick Road

By Susie Maguire

Until recently, my slim knowledge of Australia was acquired entirely through TV, books, or cinema. Neighbours, oh dear, yes (though only in the Kylie years) Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Walkabout, of course; Barry Humphries or Hugh Jackman, absolutely. Literature?  John Pilger, Thomas Keneally, Germaine Greer, Patrick White, certainly. Principally, though, my interest was fired by quite eclectic fictional choices

Murray Bail's Eucalyptus conjured groves of gum trees and a sense of stillness and magic in their speckled shade. Shane Maloney's witty spin on political intrigue and crime offered fast-tongued Murray Whelan as a contemporary Australian urban male. Arthur Upfield's detective series gave me a sense of the early 20th Century farming culture, and a mental picture of the Outback, all red sands, dry creeks, flat salt pans, shimmering mirages, and a multitude of sheep. Joan London's Gilgamesh spoke of transplantation, of changing ethnicities, of hard work and homesickness. And with huge charm, Norman Lindsay's 'The Magic Pudding' in which creatures including a Koala, a Penguin, a Possum and a Wombat variously conspire to steal a grumpy cut-an'-come-again talking Puddin' suggested a land where humour thrives, and fantastic things wait to be discovered just past the next billabong.

As indeed they do. I went to Melbourne at the invitation of the City of Literature Trust, for an event called 'Writing the City: Edinburgh in Poetry, Prose and Song', as part of a week of Scottish cultural offerings programmed by Scottish Book Trust for the Melbourne Arts Festival. My fellow travellers were Gavin Wallace of the Scottish Arts Council, Marc Lambert of Scottish Book Trust, and singer and songwriter Rod Paterson, and as we stood dazed in the reception hall of our hotel after 30 hours in transit, in walked the advance party in the shape of actor Crawford Logan.

Crawford, Gavin, Rod and I were there to perform a 'taster menu' of Scotland's literary treasures. The script was based on a similar offering in Washington earlier in the year for Tartan Week, and before that at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2005 to celebrate the bestowing on Edinburgh of its handsome crown: UNESCO City of Literature. Our afternoon audience heard 90 packed minutes crammed with gems including poetry by William Dunbar, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman McCaig, Sorley Maclean, Kathleen Jamie and James Robertson; extracts from novels by Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg, Susan Ferrier, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, John Buchan, Muriel Spark, Ian Rankin, JK Rowling; songs with lyrics from Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Hamish Henderson; and quotations from David Hume, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Stendhal, commenting on Scotland as a nation or, as Brian McCabe puts it, 'a state of mind'.

The other components of the Scottish week Down-Under were Andrew O'Hagan, discussing his views on the modern Scotland, and Liz Lochhead's and Michael Marra's show 'In Fragrant Delicht' which ran on two successive afternoons. All four events were well attended, many people returning to see more than one. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, not just in person, with smiles and handshakes, but on forms handed back after each gig, and in email to Scottish Book Trust.

The question for an individual about any communal venture comes down to: What can I bring to this project? Who is it for, and how do they benefit? Will it work? What might I gain from being involved? The answers are easy enough to quantify for an actor, in terms of immediate audience response and a fee; trickier for a writer, until sales figures trickle down; trickier still for a joint venture by several arts organisations charged with promoting Scotland as a creative hothouse. All such projects are, of course, experimental, and their benefit to Scotland's publishing or tourism industries, for instance may only be judged in the long term. But despite what may seem a random and speculative investment of time and money by you/us/the blessed Taxpayers in sending people hurtling across the globe, the argument is best expressed in phrases like 'reconnecting with the disaspora' and 'forging cultural links'. Those are terms which, until I went to Australia, I'd dismissed as jargon, but now feel I can use with optimism.

There is certainly a common culture, even in a cosmopolis like Melbourne. Among the audience were ex-pats whose accents had been twisted by 40 years in Moonee Ponds, but who still remembered the Clydeside or the villages of Fife, and who nodded and smiled at the words of Burns or Stevenson or Rankin, or tapped their feet to the old gaelic harp tune or the trad. ballads. Cultural links were being established formally and informally. Melbourne's arts organisations are working on their own bid for a City of Literature title, and are reported to be enthused by what they saw and keen to learn from Edinburgh's experience. The Spiegeltent crew and Arts Festival staff were delighted with audience numbers and response. So the prospects look good for possible expansion of the idea, in terms of other cities, a wider variety of events, marketing and so forth. For Scottish literature, says Marc Lambert, "It's a good news story."

What struck me most, as jet-lag forced me to stop and muse on the experience, were the intangibles. The way being in a place affects one personally, how that feeds into new creative ventures, the fragments that come back to stimulate or nourish a 'makar' long after the fee is spent and the passport is tucked away. From a day spent in the bush I will always remember the delicious acrid, lemony tang of hot, dry eucalyptus, the screeching of galahs and magpies and lorikeets, as we picnicked by the Yarra river. The city's curious pedestrian crossing alerts, a slow mechanical whirr and whip-crack release, like the cry of an exotic bird. The magnificent cake shops on Acland Street, the profusion of restaurants and bookshops. The mix of races and accents, the dry wit, the cheerful can-do, egalitarian attitude. The sheer confidence of the architecture, cheek-by-jowl Victorian cottages, art deco monoliths, colourful soaring skyscrapers, the extraordinary sculptural Federation Square. The artefacts in the Immigration Museum, the astonishing paintings in the National Gallery. Familiarity and otherness. Good company, laughter, wordplay. Community.

My personal diaspora moment came in the form of a first meeting with a distant cousin. Rory works as a roofer in Melbourne, and even at 26, with an accent that is pure Ocker, he reminds me of my late uncle Donald Campbell. I told him about his grandfather's life in Skye and my own life in Edinburgh, and invited him to visit Scotland and look for his roots. I hope he will. Curiously, the meeting echoed something in the novel I'm currently writing, and that's exactly the kind of unforeseeable gift this small-scale arts-pioneering can bring to an individual.

Irrespective of my personal experience, the prospect of our Executive sponsoring more such temporary cultural transplantations is to be encouraged. Not because of boxes ticked and agendas met, but as evidence of trust in the future, and as proof of Scotland's continuing contribution to global culture. Most of all because our literature, old and new, deserves to be championed.

Susie Maguire is the author of short story collections The Short Hello and Furthermore, and editor of the anthology Little Black Dress, all published by Polygon.

Last updated 30 Jan 2013